Japan: Photographing Wild Snow Monkeys, My Favorite Thing I’ve Ever Done
I first heard about the adorable Japanese Snow Macaques on the likes of a PBS nature documentary called “Hot Springs for Snow Monkeys in Hell’s Valley”. I didn’t care how, or when, but I knew that I had to see them. Period.
The type of against-all odds statistics that usually rear their ugly heads in these scenarios were (of course) present. Jigokudani Monkey Park we soon learned was far afield; quite far in fact, for two bobbling Americans to sandwich between two weekend flights to and from Tokyo. The car was right hand drive, and streets sides were also reverse. In fact, I spent most of my time as co-pilot making sure we didn’t turn blind corners into oncoming traffic (we didn’t). We had a heck of a time even getting the NAVI to coordinate directions from Nikko. Little did I know that we would arrive to see the monkeys on the last day of the season before the roads closed due to winter weather. They don’t call it Hell’s Valley for nothing. But I wouldn’t have had it any other way because the difficulties made it more memorable.
I’ve heard something along the lines of, “Half of the journey is getting there”. I’m continuously reminded of how this is insanely true.
I learned that Shinto torris like the one above mark the entrance to shrines throughout Japan. They usually symbolically mark the transition from the ordinary to the sacred. So I kept an eye out for these bright red pi signs after learning that something especially beautiful lay on the other side of each gate. Retrospectively, driving through this gate marked the beginning of the macaque leg of our trip. And what lay ahead was wondrous.
I never realized how little, okay absolutely nothing, I knew about the biodiversity of Japan’s wildlife and the variations of its landscapes until I started studying. Did you know that Japan has over 2,000 islands? It has landscapes that range from Tihiti-esque beaches to frigid snow fields where Red Crowned Cranes dance. It has over 1,500 earth quakes every year. I was especially excited to drive through the volcanic plateau. Life ranges from Tree-Frogs to tea plantations to monkeys that ride Sika Deer.
I didn’t truly realize the reality of where I was in Japan until we stopped after several hours of driving at a strangely memorable produce stand. After hardly seeing even any other vehicles, much less places for lunch, we rolled out of our hatchback Toyota smiling moronically at the amusement on the local’s faces. They greeted us nicely and the five of us had a moment of silence with twinkling eyes. I wondered if they too thought how strange and out of place we appeared in the Japanese countryside. We thanked them for the simple yet delicious grilled corn with a bow and hopped back into the car. I watched the three locals fade behind me in the side mirror as they sat talking, as before, on the front porch of the stand. I wondered if that’s what daily life looked like for them, sitting and enjoying each other’s company, waiting on two or three cars to stop by each day. I thought what a totally, entirely, different place this was from the bustling streets of Tokyo.
Most of our meals consisted of Udon Beef Noodles and sashimi picnics from the grocery stores. We frequented rest stops where kitchens made noodle dishes when you order from vending machines. I ate green tea ice cream as often as possible and consumed ungodly amounts of Royal Tea.
After hours of driving we reached our destination, the sleepy onsen town of Yudanaka Shibu where we stayed in a traditional Japanese ryokan (inn). We took off our shoes at the door and exchanged them for slippers. We stayed up befriending a couple of Aussies conversing about important ideas, politics, and human nature. We weren’t brave enough to visit the nude onsen public bath houses but we slept on floor pallets that were surprisingly comfortable. Staying in a ryokan was my most memorable hotel experience to date. I’ve noticed that I’ve grown quite open minded to hostel-like places. I suppose that’s one of the many ways travel has changed me.
The next morning we awoke to drive up the road to Jigokudani. We were unsure about what the mountain road would be like for our little rented car. The orange construction cones and roadside grave yard seemed forewarning. But minutes passed and we ended up in a beautiful forest.
After a long road-trip, a night in a ryokan, and a short hike up to Jigokudani, we finally saw what we had set out to see. We were the only people around at 9AM when hundreds of monkeys climbed down out of the mountains to get into the hot springs. They ran around underfoot, rode on mothers backs, fought, squabbled. Juveniles tried to drown each other until mothers intervened. They mated, groomed, ate with their toes, cuddled, posed for selfies with us, and were everything and more that I could have ever hoped to see. Sulfur filled the air while steam rose from the hot springs. Heavy snow started falling in a moment of perfection and I realized what an unspoiled natural wonder that the Snow Macaques truly were. We hiked back down and managed to drive out of the mountains before the roads shut down for the season.